Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction is a hefty tome, full of close analysis and careful considerations, all leading the reader toward being an intentional, considerate reader and writer of fiction. I’ve chosen just a couple of topics from the book to reflect on here, and they are so intertwined that in the end, they’re the same topic: telling and showing and the use of reliable commentary.
In his chapter on telling and showing, Booth somewhat addresses the fact that for the modern writer this notion has become a sticking point, a dogma that infects individual writers and entire programs. I think he gets at an important truth when in his discussion of Boccaccio he argues that his “artistry lied not in adherence to any one supreme manner of narration but rather in his ability to order various forms of telling in the service of various forms of showing” (16). I was glad to read this section that both acknowledges showing as a superior form of narration and the place of telling in elevating the whole. I’ve grown tired of writers who react in a knee-jerk, non-specific way to lines that “tell”. It was the section on the use of reliable commentary that moved this for me from a notion to a specific idea about just what I love about a certain amount of telling, and why I need to keep working on refining that balance.
Booth suggests that commentary must be intentional and provides some reasons why the writer might choose to comment on her story, such as providing facts, manipulating mood, molding beliefs, and some more. Some questions I came up with for myself after reading this section include: Does the reader have to know it now? If so, what is the best way to get it across? Can you explain why commentary here enhances the work as a whole? The last and most important question seemed to me to be: who decides? My answer for my own work? I do. I’m happy to have this insight as I move into this next revision of my novel, that I know is full of lines that tell when they should show. The task for me will be to keep asking myself those questions. It would be an affront to my own style and vision of the story to simple hack it all away. It’s fascinating to me how this question of good writing doesn’t necessarily translate when the writer moves from short story to novel, as I did.
For many years, I wrote only short stories, always keeping this notion of showing in mind, and for the most part, writing stories that showed more often than they told and told at the right time. There were times even when I was criticized for not telling enough, leaving the story too raw. As I began to write novels, something interesting happened. I wrote good scenes of showing, but was inclined to stitch them together with too much telling of information. This is true in the current draft of my novel. You see, I was so terrified that I wouldn’t get to the end, that I’d get lost somewhere along the way, that I kept checking in with the story. Because of this, what I ended up with is something sketchy, something that I now need to go back to the beginning of and add more detail and color to. After reading these sections, I’m beginning to see this question of telling and showing as something different than before, or maybe just as I’ve always seen it, but was not able to articulate or assert with confidence. Showing is supreme art, but commentary that is intentional is like the perfect mat and frame for the portrait.